He expected to arrive into an exuberant Italian spring, the kind he read about in Goethe, James, et al. But on the trees in the Orto Botanico he found only a swarm of hard, black buds—more infestation, it seemed, than the promise of a new season. On the third morning, he bought a trench coat, but that same afternoon the sun finally broke through, and he found himself sweating under the weight of his new purchase. He removed it, never to put it on again. Soon thereafter, the hermetic little buds must have cracked open, because the branches in the Orto Botanico acquired a minty green shimmer. The next thing he knew—it couldn’t have been many days later—they were already in full leaf. Somehow it happened. He’d missed spring.

 He thought he’d see the Orto from his room, but there’d been a misunderstanding. He was not in the apartment itself but up under the eaves in a maid’s room. It looked onto a tangle of drainpipes. And in lieu of a kitchen, there was only an electric kettle and a blackened plug. That is why, the first night, he went to a restaurant, but the waiter, slender and slick-haired, hurried him with the menu, and he ended up with a plateful of kidneys. This fact became undeniable when, lifting the fork to his mouth, he detected the faint odor of urine. As the purplish lobes cooled on his plate, he tried to get the waiter’s attention. Two bored-looking women, eating in silence with their husbands, watched him but did not intervene. Thereafter, he made himself little picnics in his room, taking notes as he ate.

Of course, he did have those two phone numbers, two people to call—a man and a woman, each of whom could decipher the menu and speak politely, at least for the length of a meal. At dinnertime, he did think of calling. And if he didn’t? Harwood would certainly give him a good ribbing. It was Harwood who’d provided the numbers, along with so much else. Harwood was not a man who understood the pleasures of solitude. He required people. Still, he was a generous soul—to a fault. There was no denying that.

His reasons for coming should be explained, for they represented an aberration, professionally speaking (he was an assistant professor in a newly created Department of Enlightenment Studies). Something happened the year before. A student, a particularly promising one, went to the quarry, the one down a dirt road five and three-quarters of a mile from campus. The quarry was filled with very blue water, and people went to swim there. The student must have gotten some bad information, because where he chose to dive, the water was very shallow. In the parking lot of the church, the boy’s parents said, We want you to have his books. They said, It’s what he would have wanted. He admired you so much. The mother brought them over the next day, her eyes wild and resigned—shock, he thought. Of course, he owned virtually all those titles. He didn’t know what to do with the new copies—replace the ones already on his shelves? They sat in the foyer until, a week later, he put all four boxes in the dry corner of the basement, then covered them with a sheet against the dust.

That night he hardly slept, and when he did, his dreams were terrifying and unspeakably violent. They hardly seemed to be his own. Just after five a.m., he got out of bed. It was the end of the quarter, and on his desk were 58 (not 59) term papers. Halfway through the first essay, he realized he could not follow the argument, not even for the length of a single paragraph. That fall, they would vote on his tenure. At nine a.m. Miss Francis called asking when he would be turning in his grades. He apologized and said he was very ill. As soon as he hung up, he dialed Harwood’s number. It was the first time he spoke to Harwood in that way. Harwood came over straight away. He said, not to worry, he would grade the papers himself if need be. Harwood also gave him the number of a sympathetic doctor. And don’t fret. You have all summer to recuperate. You’ll be fit as a fiddle by fall. You’ll see.

This turned out to be the case. In August, he was able to prepare his classes with great precision. And just before his book went to press—his first, the one that would decide his fate—he was overcome by a sudden, almost violent need to rewrite the introduction. The editor said it was too late—unless he could send it by Monday morning. Whereas the original draft served as a long and careful defense of his methodology, he now found himself writing in an entirely different mode. For three days he drew on ideas he’d only casually entertained. He cited works that, strictly speaking, were outside his field—and that he hadn’t read in years. He was, it seemed, discovering a secret rent in the Enlightenment and, simultaneously, sewing it back up, theoretically speaking. Rival camps were eviscerated with winking illusions concealed within subjective clauses. The strange process came to a close on Sunday night when, in the space of a few hours, he produced a short but entirely novel genealogy that established the Kantian Sublime as the foundation of the Modern Mind—all in eight extremely condensed paragraphs.

The next morning, a Monday, he awoke at dawn and penciled in a few final phrases—both politic and, it seemed to him, pleasingly rhythmic—that made clear his ideas were conjectural and required a great deal of further investigation. The first customer at the post office at 7.45am, he placed his strange pages in a yellow envelope on which he wrote an address in New York, New York. He didn’t even show the introduction to Harwood—there was no time.

But he did have a carbon copy, and that afternoon Harwood read the entire introduction without even sitting down at his desk. When he finished he said, Gosh, I believe you may have written something very important. Again, Harwood was right: a few months later, peer reviewers came to the same conclusion—that his introduction had opened a wide new approach. The rest of the book, nine years of painstaking philology, went unmentioned. The book was called The Invention and Uses of the Sublime in the 18th-Century, and it examined the writings of a certain brand of gentleman who suddenly felt compelled to give account, from a safe distance, of the fearful forms of the Alps. Tenure was no longer a question. The vote took place in November—the same week the country buried a young, Catholic president. As the department’s founder and chairman, Harwood was the first to shake his hand. Congratulations, sir, Harwood said, the decision was unanimous. Soon it was December and classes finished, but this time he was able to grade the papers in his usual way.

And then there was nothing left to do.

Two days before Christmas, he called Harwood. I am not well—in my thoughts, he said. The introduction—it’s backed me into a corner. What do you mean, man? Harwood said. There are dozens of directions you can go. Anyway, it’s just a few pages in a book. Come over, Alma will make her famous ribs.

Harwood’s humanity was burly and unswerving.

They ate the ribs while Alma herself stayed in the kitchen. She was always very busy with her home. Then the two men retired to Harwood’s study, as usual. It was a small room whose four walls were entirely lined with books. There was a window seat, and this too was piled high with books, so that the one narrow window was almost entirely blotted out. Books flooded the floor too, except for two narrow paths—one to Harwood’s desk, one to a leather armchair—that revealed the blue abstractions of an Oriental carpet. It was here in this room that Harwood had been working for so long on his own book. It was, on the strength of an article published some years back, expected to be very important. Of course Harwood could find scant time to write these days. The philosophy, history and various literature chairmen considered his department a de facto infringement and were forever trying to strangulate it, institutionally speaking. But Harwood was as willful as he was politic, and his little department flourished. Still, his efforts left little time for a book. There wasn’t an inch of free space on his desk to write in any case—it too was awash in books.

That evening, Harwood lit his customary pipe. Then, uncharacteristically, he got up and closed the door. I don’t want to worry you, Harwood said. But there’s been a letter. He dragged on his pipe, but it had gone out, so he lit it again. From the mother of that boy.

It seemed that, from her son’s books, the mother had held back one—a notebook, the boy’s diary. And she had worked up the strength to read it. But don’t worry! said Harwood. This book of yours has made you indispensable to the department now. And obviously the boy was not stable. There’s no reason to believe the things he wrote. So don’t worry. I am going to take care of this for us. And it was entirely within Harwood’s nature to take on such a task—and succeed. Of course it’s best not to mention the matter to anyone, Harwood said. Suddenly there was strangeness in his voice. At first it seemed a sort of repulsion, but that wasn’t it, exactly. Later that night, in his bed, he wondered if it hadn’t been a kind of glee.

He went as usual to Harwood’s for Christmas Eve, where there would be many people and a large fir tree in the parlor and, on a side table, candied fruit and a sugared ham and hot sweet punches, all of Alma’s special make. He arrived early, because he bore extravagant gifts about which he wanted to be discreet—for Harwood an ivory pipe, for Alma a plain but handsome cashmere scarf. In return he received a small black box. Inside lay a fat pen, black as a sepulcher except for the fine gold point: a Mont Blanc. The card read, For your next triumph. Alma touched his arm. All right now, Harwood said, no time to get maudlin, with guests about to arrive! This awkward scene occurred in a cramped little pantry that divided the kitchen from the dining room.

While Harwood and Alma fussed in the kitchen, he went to Harwood’s study, from which he extracted a thick volume on Sienese painting (which he knew) and an illustrated guide to the Dolomites (which he did not). It was, of course, rude to read at parties. But it was almost acceptable, he had found, to leaf through a picture book. He took the two heavy volumes and sat on a hard little chair half-hidden behind Alma’s radiant tree. Soon from the front hall, he could hear the guests stamping the cold from their legs and being happy to see one another. Any second, he knew, Harwood would force him by his elbow to “mix.”

Then something unexpected happened. Harwood did appear, but not to pry him from his seat. Instead he was delivering up someone to him—a young woman with a pale, round, shiny face. Harwood said, this is Harriet, my niece I’ve told you so much about—the one who is studying nursing. And then Harwood was gone.

My uncle has said such nice things about your book, the girl said. It sounds absolutely fascinating. Oh, he said, well, it’s really just preliminary, and explained why, but for too long a time; far past the girl’s understanding. So he stopped talking. She blinked a few times, then said, so nice to have met you, and withdrew.

Harwood soon reappeared, this time with a young man from a neighboring university, one with a large and important department of philology. I found your introduction truly compelling, the young man said. Do you have plans to develop it? Thank you, he said, and then he found he had a great deal to say—theoretical problems he would have to overcome, ancillary ideas that he had not quite articulated, even to himself. The young man asked many pertinent questions and they talked for a long time. Then Harwood appeared again. It is indeed an extraordinary thesis, he interrupted. I would envy it, except that it will no doubt bring a great deal of attention to our little department. And then Harwood gave him a sudden, sharp slap on the back. Both Harwood and the young man were smiling and looking at him. When he was leaving some hours later, he thought, this must be what it’s like actually to enjoy a party. He’d suffered, yes, but hardly a tenth as much as usual. Yet as he lay in bed, he wondered if Harwood hadn’t orchestrated it all; or rather, he wondered to what end.

Then sometime in the empty days between Christmas and New Year’s, he suddenly found a theoretical way forward. Rather than trace his genealogy of the Sublime forward to the present, as he had promised in his introduction, he told Harwood he was going to head the other way—past Altdorfer, past Masaccio, past even Giotto to discover the earliest budding of Nature as distinct from God. Perhaps, Harwood said suddenly after listening in silence for some time, you will find your material in the quickening eyes of saints. Anyway, I think it’s a grand plan, and of course I’ll do all I can.

And once again, Harwood lived up to his word. He spearheaded approval for special leave. He filled two large sheets with the names of obscure monasteries and trustworthy librarians. He found the room that, despite any confusion, was now serving him well enough. And he wrote those two letters of introduction—to the man and the woman whom, at dinnertime, he really did consider calling.

On a Monday evening, late April now, he left the Biblioteca Nazionale as usual at closing time. Research was not going well. Just the week before, he had written Harwood to say he was finding his way forward, that Harwood’s idea to look into the eyes of the saints, which had seemed cryptic at the time, now made perfect sense. For before the saints could exist in the world, they had to open their eyes to it, he wrote. He was concentrating on Cimabue in whose Madonnas he detected a primordial yearning to step out from their flat worlds of gold. He felt great satisfaction as he wrote.

But in the days following, as he tried to define and measure the difference between Cimabue and the nameless Byzantine masters who preceded him, each distinction dissolved as soon as he tried to translate it into words. He grew despondent. The entire project was over-ambitious and ill-defined. It felt far too remote from his own field. It involved methods that he did not, and perhaps never could, firmly grasp. His Italian was a joke.

How could Harwood not have predicted these problems?

Stepping out of the library that Monday evening, he found the streets filled with an unexpected light. Just the Friday before it had been dark at this time. The brightness was like an intrusion. On the steps of Santa Croce, some men were arguing and passing a bottle. He nearly got past them when the bottle, empty now, skittered across the pavement and struck his ankle. He increased his pace. Halfway up the five dark flights to his room, he stopped to catch his breath.

Opening his door, he found that a horizontal light was flooding his west-facing room, seeming to obliterate it. He made his way to the window, closed the shutters and waited for the room to come back into view. It did, but an agitating whiteness continued to seep through the shutters. He could not stay there, inside. So he went out. He walked around for a long time, until finally it was dark.

This was the night he finally made the call.

He did not call the woman, who was, according to Harwood, brilliant and known by everyone and shared the same illustrious name as a forbearer condemned by Dante to the Seventh Circle. But don’t worry, Harwood said, sin has long been bred out of her. The man’s name was Esposito. He doesn’t seem to have an actual job or even a profession, Harwood said. I believe he is Neapolitan, but he is charming and knows every inch of Florence.

He found a phone in a cafe. The man answered, said he had been waiting for the call, and after some very brief pleasantries suggested they meet tomorrow “in the light of day”—a foreignism resulting, apparently, from too direct a translation.

 At exactly two, a man was walking across Piazza Pitti directly toward him. His shoulders had an athletic bulk and he kept coming. When they shook hands, he noticed a scar just visible through the man’s gray, well-trimmed beard. It began next to his ear and stopped, as if in midcourse, just above his jaw. Before their hands parted, Esposito was saying, I have read your brilliant introduction. I once was very keen on aesthetics myself. Then Esposito began to pose one question after another, revealing a fine grasp of the subject and, it seemed, certain piquant doubts about the project too—not its validity perhaps, but certainly its originality. How does your genealogy differ from Rothman’s? Did Gournay not make a similar point in his essay about Kant and Fichte? For half an hour he asked these kinds of questions as they walked through the Boboli gardens. Then he said, in fact, such things are no longer of interest to me. These days, my sole object of inquiry is my fellow man. His English was more than fluent—it was nearly perfect.

They seemed to have proceeded at random through the famous gardens, but when he made an inventory later in his mind he realized that they took in all of the best parts: the amphitheater, the grotto, the stolen obelisk. He had known the names of all these things, but not the sensations that they could cause. In the dark tunnel-like arbors that lead down to the Isolotto, he felt keenly the fact that they were very far from any other person. High above them the trees, ancient and outsized, shuddered with an invisible wind. Then suddenly a vast nightmarish fear began to grip him, a blind urge to run. But it was instantly dispersed as they emerged from the dark paths into the bright clearing that lay at the farthest extent of the gardens. A wide, fragrant circle of lemon trees bloomed in the sun, and from the Isolotto, a mossy Olympian reared up. They had stopped talking, and he began to think, I have missed spring. I have missed it because of the cowardice that afflicts me.

Esposito came to his side. You are broken hearted, I think. Esposito squeezed his forearm, then held it firmly for several long moments. It was entirely different from the kind of bucking up Harwood gave him. He tried to respond—thank him, apologize, push him away—but could only manage an instinctive twisting away from the man’s dark eyes.

It’s just that I was hoping to see spring, he said. He was nodding as he spoke, as if in violent agreement with himself. It was an odd thing to say, since the evidence of spring—papery wild irises in the grass, stinging bees in the lemon blossoms, the smell of pond scum—was all around them.

I suppose, Esposito said, there is a kind of grief a man never gets over.

This too was a strange thing to say. It sobered his thoughts and forestalled any more blubbering. They walked in silence back up the long slope of Viale dei Cipri. Leaving the gardens, Esposito said, shall we meet again tomorrow then? Same time and place?

It was almost five—too late to return to the library. In his room, he confronted a now familiar invading brightness. He looked at his return ticket, not understanding how he would make it two more months. Then he saw an envelope, which had been slipped—by whom?—under his door. It was from Harwood.

It contained only ominous things.

There’d been another letter from the boy’s mother. Harwood said he was doing his best but no longer offered his usual sterling guarantees. It also contained a clipping from a prestigious literary review, about which Harwood wrote, I am very sorry to say that this man was supposed to be my friend. What he has written is, I feel, merely the fruit of envy. Anyway, I would not worry about a single review.

Then he read the review. Written in round tones of circumspection, it extinguished, one by one, the hopes that other readers had stoked. It referenced both Rothman and Gournay.

When he finally got out of bed the next morning, it seemed he’d never slept, but that couldn’t have been true, because he’d had so many terrible dreams; in them he was pursued by a dark and nameless force. Exhausted, he wanted only to find a safe place to lie down, even for a moment. And he did find places –a depression in the ground, a niche in a wall, sometimes his actual bed. But as soon as his eyes closed, the force, or forces, surged up and he was wide awake again, sometimes, apparently, in his bed, sometimes in yet another dream.

Afraid of appearing demented, he washed with extra care the next morning at the little sink and put on a clean shirt. As he did, he felt a surge of energy, a wild sense that everything was as it should be, but this lasted only a few minutes. As he was descending the staircase, his vision narrowed and he seemed not to feel his own legs. He was afraid he would tumble forward, and down. His route to the library passed Giotto’s friendly bell tower, that early flower of the Renaissance. But today he could only wonder how many workers had fallen to their deaths to create its pretty heights.

He found his usual place in the main reading room—always there for him, since he was always the first to arrive. He took out his notebook and pen—the Montblanc. Then he opened Vasari where he’d left off. “The great master began working with his chisel, letting a little dust fall now and then. Looking down to the Gonfaloniere, he say said, ‘Look at it now.’ ‘It pleases me better,’ responded the Gonfaloniere; ‘you have given it life!’ The great sculptor descended his scaffold and said he pitied those who make a show of understanding matters about which they really know nothing.”

He stopped reading. For a long time he just sat very still with his head in his hands. Then he tore a sheet from his notebook and began the letter.

“Now I know...”

It seemed he was going to write more. But then he stopped. There was not even a salutation.

He tore up the piece of paper. Then he took the pen and began smashing it against the table, again and again, thinking, not exactly in words, This is the letter I am going to write! Yes, this is that letter! When the pen finally broke into shards, a man was already coming up behind him. Probably he was shouting, Are you mad? Stop, you fool! Stop now! Stop! Black ink was spraying over the open page of his notebook, streaking the spines of the books that he had been consulting. The man grabbed him by the elbow and pushed him along toward the main hall, spewing up a fluent, incomprehensible stream of invectives. He assumed the man would drag him all the way the police, but the matter was settled with a more personal shove out the front door.

He began to laugh. Anyone watching would have assumed he was mad. In fact, he’d just seen Esposito, who was stationed in the cafe opposite the library’s entrance. Wearing an ivory-colored suit and appearing to read the morning paper without hurry, he had all the makings of a gentleman.

Suddenly a fine energy surged up in him. He walked straight over to Esposito, just as Esposito had done the day before. What a coincidence, he said. Then he was going to say, Will Rothman and Gournay be joining you?

But the other man was already speaking.

He was saying he could not stop thinking about what they’d talked about the day before—about missing spring. In fact, he said, the idea rather haunted him. And then it struck him. You see, he said, in the Apuani snow is still clinging to the highest peaks. And they were not so far away—only a few hours away by car. A friend had one just sitting in his garage. If they were willing to tackle a few steep slopes—nothing too treacherous, he knew the way—they could leave behind the already-ripe valleys and climb their way to the very first manifestations of spring. They would pass newly opened asphodels at 2,000 feet, and then the saffron crocuses that must still be pushing through the pine beds above 4,000 feet. And finally, if they persisted, they would reach the first green shoots that, quickened by melting snow, were just then emerging from the nicks and fissures that mark the granite peaks.

It was a radiant idea, and also a carefully prepared speech.

He looked back at the entrance to the library entrance. The man was still there, waiting until the troublemaker cleared the area. He thought of his room, which he had so recently fled. He thought of his return ticket, and of the diary of his student, and Harwood, and the letters from the student’s mother. I think a ramble in the hills sounds absolutely sublime, Harwood would have said. Take a break from your labors. You’d be a fool not to. And suddenly the rage that had ignited him in the library, that had propelled him across to Esposito, to look into his insolent black eyes, to say that he knew he and Harwood were in league—it was gone. His mind, which in fact was quite exhausted, was taken over by that radiant idea of spring in the Apuani, an idea that already seemed to have been his own all along.

As they walked away from the cafe, Esposito said, you know, Michelangelo hunted for his marble in the Apuani. It’s where found his David—in the quarries of Carrara. His David.

As they crossed Santa Trinita bridge (the friend with the car lived across the river), a tall woman in a stately peach-colored hat tried to get Esposito’s attention. Roberto! Roberto! She was getting exasperated. Is there something wrong, Roberto? Roberto!! He stopped and greeted her without actually looking in her direction.

Considering this in no way satisfactory, she made her way over, a French bulldog dragging behind her. Insisting on meeting Esposito’s eye, she laughed and scolded him in Italian. He responded monosyllabically. At a certain point she waited in stubborn smiling silence until she was introduced to his companion. That’s when he discovered she was the woman with the illustrious name. The one Harwood wanted him to meet. She scolded him, too, for never having called. But, she said, Harwood did say you were rather—she paused—shy. So then, Roberto, where are you stealing off to with our new friend?

The Oltarno, said Esposito.

I can see as much. But to what end? Reluctant at first but then slowly conjuring enthusiasm, he told her of their search for spring.

Oh my, she said, how poetic! I, by contrast, am going to see about the color of my hair. What do you think of lavender? She was greatly amused with what she said. Well, then, shall we leave each to his little adventure?

But after a few steps she stopped, turned and said: You know, I warned Harwood, and now I am warning you, my new friend. Roberto is not always a nice man. Then she laughed some more.

On the far side of the bridge, Esposito said, She is why I loathe all women.

Esposito’s fists were clenched. A black mood had descended on him. It did not lift after negotiating use of the car, nor when they had broken free of city traffic and were hurtling along fine country lanes, nor when the mountains began to rear up before them. After two nearly silent hours, they reached the trailhead, and by now it was no longer the woman but Esposito’s hiking companion who became the focus of his aggravation. Esposito rushed him out of the car and up the path, eventually picking up a large stick and poking him, like a sheep or a goat. Esposito didn’t even make a show of pointing out asphodels or saffron crocuses, if indeed any were to be seen. There was no way to resist Esposito, but a few times he did try to stop, just to ask a question. For example, he wanted to know, to be absolutely sure, that it was Harwood who had planned all of this, that it was he who had provided Esposito’s line about Rothman and Gournay, that—God, this was just occurring to him now—even the mother’s letters were Harwood’s invention. He wouldn’t be angry, he wanted to say, he just wanted to be told the truth. But when he tried to speak, he felt only the sharp sting of Esposito’s stick. Don’t stop! Get going! Esposito said. No, not that way, you fool! Get up, you clumsy idiot! If you don’t stop blubbering and start walking, I’ll kick your God damned teeth in!

At some point there came a blow to an invisible region of his skull. It was hard to identify the location of the blow, for it had come as a great black shock. When he emerged from it, time had elapsed, or seemed to have, for the sun was dimmed, or at least he could not seem to locate it in the sky. But at least the roaring pain in his head negated, or somehow balanced out, by the fiery agony of his ankle, which hung now at an odd angle, as if his foot were not his own. There no longer seemed to be any path. At times, he felt he was still walking, other times that he was being pushed or dragged. At some point a new—and incandescent—kind of pain took over the length of his spine.

Then suddenly a valley opened up before them and, beyond it, the highest parts of the Apuani. The snows were long gone, the summits bare and flinty. However, lower down, there were great white gashes in the mountains’ dark flanks. He must have been upside down by then, because he thought the gashes were in fact snowcapped peaks. He thought he was somehow seeing all the way to Switzerland. In fact, they were only the quarries at Carrara. 


Robert Landon

Besides fiction, ROBERT LANDON writes about architecture and travel. His work has appeared in Lonely Planet, Metropolis.com, Archdaily.com and many other publications.